Thursday, February 9, 2012

Lords and Ladies: The Spectacular Harlequin Duck

A drake Harlequin Duck, Histrionicus histrionicus, in repose. This species, in my estimation, is one of the most elaborate and eye-catching of the world's fowl. That's saying something as there are a lot of beautiful ducks afloat on the globe. It's as if Pablo Picasso was commissioned to create a cubist collage of a bird.

Last weekend saw me visiting the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, to speak at a symposium at the sensational Longwood Gardens. Once that gig was complete, it was into the car for a short two hour drive to the Atlantic Coast and one of my favorite seaboard locales, Barnegat Light, New Jersey. There I met up with a friend from The Blogosphere, Amy of Chatter from the Wren's Nest. That's Amy glassing the waters of Barnegat Bay and being bedazzled by all of the interesting waterbirds.

Wintertime birding at Barnegat is always interesting, and especially so when the tide is rolling out. Amy and I hit it perfectly, as mid-morning saw the bay's waters rushing seaward with the force of a whitewater rapids river. All of that hydrological turbulence stirs up the food, and birds descend on the mouth of the bay in droves.

But the Harlequin Ducks can nearly always be easily found, as their diet consists of much more sedentary prey. Here, a small feeding flock works the waters just off Barnegat's long stone jetty.

A drake snorkels for food. He is skimming along with his face under the surface, scanning for tasty morsels. Once a good meal is located, he'll dive down and wrench his aquatic prey from the substrate.

A pair of rather muted females flank a gaudy drake. This disparity in flashiness between the sexes leads to one the colloquialisms for this species, "Lords and Ladies".

These ducks were nearly at my feet, perched on rocks at the base of the jetty. And they are literally standing on their food. Low tide has exposed thickets of blue mussels, Mytilus edulis, a common North Atlantic mollusk. Harlequins are very much birds of the brutal interface of sea and rock, expertly diving in the turbulent waters to exploit mussels in a nearshore zone that other species of sea ducks shun. Such rough work has its costs. Supposedly a fair number of Harlequin Duck museum specimens show evidence of bone fractures, probably due to battering against rocks in the surfy chop in which they ply their trade.

If you've not birded Barnegat, toss the trip into your bucket list. It's worth it for the Harlequins alone. But there is much, much more. I returned from this foray with an armful of good photos of many interesting species of birds - many of them great rarities in my landlocked neck of the woods. I'll probably be sharing a few more of Barnegat Light's birds before long.


Tammy said...

Fascinating photos!!!

Donna Williamson said...


What spectacular ducks! Thanks so much for your great observations!


Wren nests in... said...

Good grief. I thought you were making up their scientific name to see if we were paying attention... ::face/palm::

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments! Yes, the Harlequins are outrageous animals, and they alone merit the trip to Barnegat.